2009 turned out to be a watershed year for indie rock, defined by what critic Jeff Weiss calls “the three-headed Hydra of Hype that was The Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective, and Grizzly Bear.” Each of those bands supported their artistic breakthroughs with a certain amount of commercial success. Merriweather Post Pavilion and Veckatimest made their debuts on Billboard at #13 and #8, respectively; Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca peaked at a respectable #65. All three albums landed on Pitchfork’s Top 200 of the decade, representing the only selections from 2009 on there; all of them even placed well within the highest 30%. It stands to reason that the triumvirate will come to signify late-00’s rock music more than any other albums of recent years. Yet, as much as the timing of the parallel surges in the bands’ popularity ties them together, it’s astonishing just how different the albums are. Surely there are people out there who value all three in equal measure, but I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a strong preference among them.
In broad strokes: Veckatimest is folk-based NPR-bait that practically renders last year’s beloved Fleet Foxes debut obsolete. Merriweather is (arguably) the high point of an eight-album career, channeling the band’s avant-garde, psychedelic, and electronic predilections into a mostly accessible Beach Boys tribute. Bitte Orca, on the other hand, is a spikier proposition altogether. Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective earn their commercial successes with albums that contain staggering songwriting, but rarely offer anything in the way of genuine surprise—especially if you’re already familiar with the two bands’ catalogues. Dirty Projectors, on the other hand, stun at every turn, offering Afrobeat-tinged R&B, power ballads, and Zeppelin-style guitar workouts, all within an accessible framework. Their work is revelatory to both the band and indie rock as a whole. The difference is built right into the album names. Veckatimest and Merriweather Post Pavilion take their names from pastoral settings—an island near Martha’s Vineyard and an outdoor concert venue within a planned community in Maryland. Bitte Orca is a mishmash of German and Latin that, near as I can tell, roughly translates to “You’re Welcome, Whale.” I suppose it’s pretty obvious where my preference lies.
Prior to releasing 2007’s Rise Above, a recreation of Black Flag’s Damaged made purely from memory, the last album of Dirty Projectors’ new material was 2005’s The Getty Address, a concept album that claimed to be an opera about post-9/11 America. Its protagonist: Don Henley. Until Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors’ band leader and principal song writer Dave Longstreth frequently couched his songs in high concepts. Here, he directs a limitless creative intelligence toward pop craftsmanship, drawing on wide ranging influences in order to cobble them together in a distinctly novel sound. Talking Heads, Ali Farka Touré, Timbaland, Steve Reich, Aretha Franklin, and plenty of other artists have a direct impact on Longstreth’s remarkably taut compositions, giving Bitte Orca the virtue of sounding like an album where anything could happen at any time without actually being an album where anything could happen at any time. At the same time, it’s much more than an intellectual exercise. Longstreth’s songs are loose, dance-friendly, and—when he rattles off lines like “What hits the spot more than Gatorade?/You and me, baby/Hittin’ the spot all night”—genuinely funny. More than anything else, they’re forward-thinking. While Veckatimest and Merriweather Post Pavilion will likely come to symbolize the sound of 2009 in rock, Bitte Orca stands a chance of helping to define a whole new era.
-Martin Brown, 2010